No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe

Posted on: August 24, 2014

Previously published in Dawn's Books & Authors.

In James Smythe’s No Harm Can Come to a Good Man, ClearVista is “the world’s foremost predictions and statistics company,” accessible to the public as an application that really can control your life as much as it informs it.

Checking an outcome with ClearVista is as easy and as frequently done as using Google is right now. The system uses algorithms to work out probabilities of future outcomes — “It’s mostly data mining and compositing information. It’s taking sources and trying to make them work in conjunction.” It can tell you the best route to get your daughter to school, the safety ratings of your next flight, what your chances are at being a good man, at overcoming grief, committing sexual abuse or even whether you have a chance at being the next president of the United States. An algorithm that works in absolutes, ClearVista will go ahead and also predict what will happen to the candidate who isn’t as likely to win. When Senator Laurence Walker’s people ask ClearVista to run the numbers on him, they expect nothing but positive results. Laurence is the perfect presidential candidate — a good politician, father, husband and all round nice guy. Of the statistical probabilities ClearVista provides after collecting a thousand answers from Laurence himself and all other possible online sources, most of the results are as expected — except the one that counts the most in his political race.

ClearVista sends back Laurence’s report with a video that predicts the future — the reason why there is a zero per cent probability of Laurence being president. The video is a composite of images collected from various sources and shows him standing with a gun in his hand, his family huddled together, weeping and afraid. There is a gunshot, and a scream. Laurence, watching it again and again, is unable to comprehend how this scenario could possibly play out: “there is something about the version of his face that the software has created — so blank and expressionless — that makes him feel sick to his stomach.” There is no way for his people to spin this — Laurence Walker will not just lose the presidential race, he will also have a violent breakdown and cause great harm.

Early in the book, Laurence’s family suffers a terrible personal tragedy at a lake house they have bought as a sanctuary away from the media attention Laurence’s political career forces upon him. Laurence is directly involved in the incident, his grief and guilt putting his career on hiatus for a year. But he picks himself up and gets back in the game, as each family member deals with the tragedy in their own way — his wife Deanna turns to writing a thinly veiled fantasy about her suffering, his teenage daughter Lane has herself tattooed slowly, systematically, letting her grief be inked onto her skin. Things are not good with the Walker family but they seem to be trudging along — until the video from ClearVista spills across every television screen in the country.

Is Laurence being targeted specifically by someone or is ClearVista just doing it’s job? Who runs the system, who monitors it and is it truly infallible? “The Numbers Don’t Lie,” insist ClearVista, so what this scenario could possibly mean, especially for someone who has never shown any inclinations towards violence, is something none of the people involved can understand. Laurence, his wife and his aide Amit are all unable to understand the prediction — and frustratingly, there seem to be no people at ClearVista who can explain: everything is run by automated systems and there seem to be no actual humans to speak with until Amit tracks down the creators.

But ClearVista appears to be frighteningly omniscient — even it’s creators cannot completely understand how it develops the way it does. “Don’t ask me how,” says the man involved in setting up ClearVista, “but the algorithm gets results we can’t. Private records. It knows everything. Everything.”

Here is the onset of impending doom, the heavy atmospheric disturbance that resonates in each of Smythe’s novels. It’s fatalistic and it’s fantastic — you’re caught up it’s moody web, uncomfortable but also intrigued, watching as a man falls apart, watching his family attempt to tether him and fail. You can’t look away as the small town he has grown to call home turns against him based on something that has not happened. Numbers don’t lie, after all, and if the numbers predict a frightening future, is there any way to avoid it? How much is an accurate, objective probability based on Big Data collection really able to define a person’s destiny? Is knowing that your worst fears are very likely to come true a self-fulfilling truth?

What’s dystopic about the world Smythe creates for No Harm is not that it is set in a post-apocalyptic society, or a fallen civilisation, but rather that this is a world in which your every moment really can be watched and collected and used to judge not just you but also who you may become. It isn’t something new to us anymore — this is our world, our world of internet monitoring and privacy infiltration and virtual footprints that display our needs, our greed, our movements, analysing all our patterns to understand who we are and who we could become.

No Harm is set in the near future — as with the world of Smythe’s The Machine, this is a world that is entirely recognisable, with some advances in technology that really aren’t very far away from where we are today. And as with The Machine, there is again a constant wrongness of things, of the uncanny and the inevitable. Here is a solid cerebral thriller completely in touch with contemporary society and its demons.